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New Megabus service debuts in Los Angeles

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Is this the magic bus that will pry Angelenos away from their steering wheels?

A new nonstop line will roll into Los Angeles next week, serving seven cities with a handful of fares as low as $1. Megabus, a subsidiary of Coach USA, will carry passengers from L.A. to San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix. The fleet will follow routes well served by airlines and Greyhound buses and well traveled by motorists.

Another express bus company based in a city that loves to drive has found it's not easy to get people on board. "We are still struggling," said Kazuhiro Nakagawa, a partner in California Shuttle Bus, a 4-year-old concern that runs buses once a day to San Francisco and charges $45 per ticket ($60 for "luxury" accommodations, guaranteeing the seat next to yours will be empty).

Some days, he said, there are only two or three passengers on board. "The people who are in L.A. are not accustomed to using public transportation like buses," Nakagawa said.

Megabus executives said they were undeterred. "We truly believe there's a market for this," said Dale Moser, president and chief operating officer of Coach USA/Megabus. "It's an excellent value for your money."

The Megabus service began in the United Kingdom four years ago and was rolled out in the American Midwest last year. Executives were unsure at first if they would be successful in a country where people were more accustomed than their British cousins to driving their own cars. But now Megabus is operating in 14 cities, including Chicago.

Midwesterners who try it keep coming back, Moser said, and more than half had never been on an inter-city bus before.

He predicted that Southern Californians would try a nonstop bus to escape rising gas costs and congestion, and that people concerned about the environmental effect of driving or flying would be interested in the bus alternative.

A few seats on each Megabus will sell for $1 -- plus a 50-cent booking fee -- to customers who book the furthest in advance. Most fares will be in the range of what Greyhound charges.

The highest price for a ticket to San Francisco -- about a seven-hour ride -- will be $38.50, while a ticket to Las Vegas -- about 4 1/2 hours -- will be $34.50.

That isn't much less than some plane tickets. Virgin Airlines recently unveiled $44 flights to San Francisco, and Southwest will fly you to Vegas for $59.

Beyond that, Greyhound Lines Inc. makes 14 trips a day from Los Angeles to San Francisco and 15 to Las Vegas.

"We always welcome competition," said Anna Folmnsbee, a Greyhound spokeswoman.

Megabus probably needs to sell about 20 tickets per trip to break even, said Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, a Sylmar-based mass transportation advocacy group.

"If it's marketed properly and hits the right people, it could work quite well," he said.

Megabus will advertise on billboards, in bus shelters and train stations and in college newspapers and AARP publications. Tickets will be available on its website ( starting Thursday. The company plans to launch a Spanish-language version of the site in the future.

Effective marketing and cheap fares have worked on the East Coast. A bevy of low-cost buses has been plying highways between Boston and Washington for years, giving bus travel a good name even in a region with plentiful train service. The same thing could happen in California, Reed said, with the right level of competition.

Caleb Epps, a Boston transplant living in L.A., said he would appreciate having the option of riding the bus.

Back home, the 26-year-old audio engineer frequently took the so-called Chinatown Bus from Boston to New York, paying less than $20 for the four-hour journey.

In the West, where "the spaces are so big," he said, bus travel might not have much appeal.

"It's going to be a tough sell," he said. "People are used to having their own car and using it to go wherever they want."

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